Horizon at Sandy Point

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Gatsby phenomenon

It's easier for women to be be upwardly mobile by being beautiful; than it is for a man to do it by becoming overwhelmingly rich in five years. This is just one of the conclusions to be drawn from The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald's early twentieth century classic, recently released with Leonardo di Caprio as Jay Gatsby; Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey McGuire as Nick Carroway.

The plot of Fitzgerald's story is simple. Jay Gatsby has been carrying a torch for Daisy since their romantic entanglement five years before, when they were both poor. The war took Gatsby away. After the war, chance put him in the way of a lifestyle change aboard a yacht owned by Captain Cody whose life he saved.  After Cody's death, he was still destitute but with airs which drove him to make a fortune through drugstores and bootlegging. Daisy was lovely and lively enough to attract old-moneyed Tom Buchanan - from the first, she is aware that she doesn't hold him and he constantly wanders off to a mistress; although he confesses, "I've always come back to you." They have a daughter of whom Daisy says, "I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

The story is told by Nick Carroway who is Gatsby's neighbour. The telling is both intimate and objective; in the recent film Nick sees himself "within and without." He is Daisy's cousin and Gatsby's confidante who brings her back into Gatsby's life. Within, because he does take a side - that of romance, and admiration for the only person he's ever met who is eternally optimistic. Without, as he relates the story and its impact on him, unvarnished and truthful as he can be.

Gatsby's accumulation of wealth has only one purpose - to win Daisy back to him. This licenses the Baz Luhrmann written and directed (2013) version to feature orgiastic parties thrown in Gatsby's mansion. All are welcome, as he hopes to draw the Buchanans who live across the bay, and bring Daisy to his house. When this doesn't work, he befriends Nick - Daisy's distant cousin - and arranges for him to bring her to tea.

The movie - as the book - dwells in contradictions and contrast, such as still exist in societies a century later. In the "golden age" of the American dream, there is wealth without work; waste in the face of destitution; the belief that pleasure is an end in itself; and that we can reach and take what our hearts desire. The unworldly suburbs connect with the shining city of  New York through a valley of squalid industry and dim ignorance. And it is here that all stumble and fall - Tom Buchanan to take another man's wife because he can afford to; Daisy who doesn't see it as a place to slow down; and Gatsby himself confounded by his own dream and desire.

In the end, people don't trust sudden wealth. And old money can be carelessly used by people like Tom and Daisy: they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness...

The Gatsby lifestyle blows away like leaves at the end of that summer. His greatness - like a light, like the green light across the bay which was his beacon - memorialized only in the waking-from-the-dream recollection of Nick Carroway: He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.

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